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The Drama of it All 

After 32 years, Wallace, Idaho's Sixth Street Melodrama Theatre still isn't taking itself too seriously

click to enlarge The cast of Curtain Call: A Vaudeville Revue at the Sixth Street Melodrama. - YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak
  • The cast of Curtain Call: A Vaudeville Revue at the Sixth Street Melodrama.

They're on stage clowning around. Wearing an assortment of oversized curly wigs, hats and polka-dot bow ties, the players burst into Cole Porter's "Be A Clown." They breeze through the chorus, but the verses prove tricky. The piano accompanist plugs on anyway.

"Oh, let's try that again," says show co-director Carol Roberts to the six other actors lining the edge of the tiny stage framed with a red curtain.

Tonight, at the downtown Wallace Sixth Street Melodrama Theatre, performers are rehearsing for Curtain Call: A Vaudeville Revue, a variety show of favorite songs, jokes, tap dances and skits from the theater's 32 years in business. This is a rarity, as the theater normally stages melodramas — a genre, especially popular in the 1800s, known for hyper-sensationalism, improvisation and stereotypical characters (think Snidely Whiplash from The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, who constantly ties damsels to train tracks). Melodramas commonly have two titles, such as this summer's Sixth Street original show The Trouble With the Theatre OR Why Are You Acting Like That?

The first Sixth Street scripts, in the early '80s, dramatized miners' lives in the Silver Valley. Ever since, local actors and directors have mostly written their own family-friendly shows, meaning they don't pay show royalties, just a music licensing fee for songs used. In the summers, when historic Wallace is overflowing with tourists, the theater is open nearly every day. During the school year, they offer shorter runs, and also a regular play or musical.

Tonight, a crowd has gathered from across the Silver Valley for this special revue. There were no auditions; these are all folks who've helped shape the theater, through the years of plenty and the more prevalent years of barely scraping by.

Musical Pastor OR The Cross-dressing Motorcyclist

Elvira stands in the spotlight, wrapped in a bushy feather boa.

Ken Bartle croons lovingly to the cardboard cutout: "I'd rather dive into a swimming pool filled with double-edged razor blades / Than spend one more minute with you."

The darkened 87-seat theater fills with laughter from the other actors.

The original "Weird Al" Yankovic tune is a comical choice for the Lutheran pastor in his 60s from Pinehurst, Idaho. He's not afraid to do much for laughs. In one melodrama last year, he played a brother and sister. His stage entrance in a dress received the heartiest chuckles from his Our Savior Lutheran Church congregants in the audience. Bartle says he doesn't usually participate in the theater's summer productions; he needs time to ride his Harley-Davidson, after all.

"This is all just part of my personality," Bartle says. "It's the best way to get this all out."

Haunted House OR It's All In Your Head

They say there's a ghost here. Of course, thespians are notoriously superstitious and the building has been standing for well over a century, miraculously surviving multiple fires. This supposed spirit is one of the workers from the brothel which used to occupy this space — just one of many brothels from Wallace's sordid past.

"I can't believe there's a ghost here. I'm here by myself a lot of the time," says Sixth Street veteran Paul Roberts, husband to Carol and also the Kellogg High School drama teacher.

Walking around the theater's second floor, he shows off the bedrooms that have been turned into dressing and costume rooms. There's one pantry-size room specifically for hats. The largest space at the end of the long, chilly corridor, which would have belonged to the madam, houses props.

Even though the theater has occupied the building for 30 years, Paul says passersby have inquired if the upstairs is still open for business. It is not.

Cleaning Crew OR How to Find Everything You Thought You Lost

In the past year and a half, the theater has undergone a major transformation. They've cleaned up. Theater manager Sean Shelley, a Wallace native with a boyish face, has overseen the project with the help of many local volunteers.

"Some upstairs rooms you couldn't even walk into," says Shelley, who has written three shows. "We had no idea what we had in the basement, and then we ended up finding some brand-new power tools."

Now people can walk through the building without tripping, and the theater is saving money. They've uncovered clothes with the tags still on and strange props from old performances.

"We recently found a sign that said 'White Slaves,'" Shelley says. "I don't even want to know what that's about."

Energy Rush OR What Awkward Feels Like

Rick Shaffer, the self-appointed Prime Minister of Wallace, hasn't been in a production since 2005. But tonight, after a bit of a warmup, he's back in the theater groove.

"I have absolutely no talent," says Shaffer, who owns multiple hotels in town. "But I'm an adrenaline junkie, and that thrill you get when you're about to grab a doorknob and to make an entrance on stage, that energy is incredible."

He recalls shows where everything went wrong. Once, the backdrop began falling down and he had to prop it up with his 6-foot-8-inch frame. There was another time, 30 minutes before a show, that he took over a role for someone who called in sick. He walked around stage with the lines in hand. He says the awkward moments are what bind the Sixth Street performers together.

"This is small-town stuff at its best," Shaffer says. "The show must always go on."♦

Curtain Call: A Vaudeville Review • Fri-Sun, Nov. 6-22, Fri and Sat at 7 pm; Sun at 2 pm • $15/$13 seniors, students, military • Sixth Street Melodrama Theatre • 212 Sixth St., Wallace, Idaho • • 208-752-8871

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